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San Antonio solar farm

There’s more solar energy available in Texas now than before.

[Texas’] first solar farm, an array of 215,000 photovoltaic panels that capture sun rays and turn them into power, went on line Thursday in San Antonio. Statewide, at least six more projects are in earlier stages of development.

“We have some of the best solar radiation in the country,” said a hopeful Luke Metzger of Environment Texas, “just a ton of sun.”

Until the big plants are up and adding electricity to the consumer grid, however, that power remains primarily potential. Tapping it will be controversial as long as solar is expensive relative to energy from other sources, overwhelmingly coal and natural gas.

And even if all the projects now on the books get built, they would create a mere sliver of the electricity Texans consume every year.
Yet proponents insist solar power has a bright future here, with economic as well as environmental benefits.

Electricity generated by solar-photovoltaic technology today costs five times as much to produce as coal-fired energy, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Natural gas is an even cheaper source.

Solar is expensive even compared with other renewable sources, especially wind, which is narrowing the price gap with fossil fuels. And the Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2016, photovoltaic power on average will remain more than twice as expensive as wind-generated and more than three times as expensive as coal-fired.

Yet state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, contends that renewable energy, particularly solar, “is where the market is headed,” and Texas would be wise to support the fledgling industry. He sponsored legislation in 2009 that would have provided rebates for individuals adding solar panels to their homes and for companies building utility-scale solar plants.

First, 2016 is just five years out, so there’s no reason to believe that solar won’t continue to get cheaper in the long run. Technology doesn’t necessarily advance linearly, either. It also may be the case that it’s just going to cost more to generate power down the line. If we were properly pricing the externalities of coal and other greenhouse gas sources, we’d already be thinking of it in more expensive terms. So the sooner we start working on and improving cleaner sources of energy like solar, the better off we’ll be.

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